December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
N.T. Wright, For All the Saints
Yesterday Katherine and I visited with her father where he is being cared for in a Nashville medical center. We are here because I am performing a wedding ceremony for friends who live in Baltimore (and I fly back late tonight!), and it gave us an opportunity to spend some time with ‘Opa,’ as our children call him. It was a sweet time.
At some point Katherine and her Dad, both gifted with beautiful singing voices, joined together in singing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Lovely would be an understatement.
This Christmas is a first for us. For the first time we will celebrate without either of my parents in this world. Along with Katherine’s Mom, both have died and are no longer here. From time to time sadness overtakes us.
Regardless of how old we become, we can look all the way back to childhood in remembering Christmases past.
Recently some of us recalled growing up in Miami. When I was a young boy we lived in Carol City, which is almost as far north as one can go without leaving the city. Each year the streetlights on NW 27th Avenue were decorated with those colored frilly foil candy canes and Christmas bells. We would drive past them and throughout the neighborhoods as a family, listening to Christmas music on our car AM radio, looking at the lights as we embedded ourselves into the season.
One day our children will remember after we are gone.
The memories bring a kind of muted joy. Though sometimes I am brought to the point of tears in recalling them, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Advent is as much about embracing sadness as it is looking to a future joy. Herod plotted Jesus’ death as Mary and Joseph celebrated His birth. This is our world – joy and sorrow always intermingled. And until Jesus comes and makes everything new it will be this way. Even in blessing Jesus at his presentation at the temple, Simeon said to his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…’ (Luke 2:35).
To insulate ourselves from the world’s sorrows is to live as though Jesus is merely an ornament rather than the Deliverer that He is, and it robs us of the joy of the expectation of His coming. It is in the sadness that we find a deep longing for the sweeter day when Jesus returns.
We celebrate that He has come, and that He is coming. We limp along with our world, longing for the day when it will forever reflect His good reign.
We look to the day we will see our parents again – at the Feast. Until then, we embrace the sorrow that in Jesus, leads to unending joy. Every now and then we are given opportunities to hear the sweet song of life, and maybe even to sing along.
What good news of great joy…
grace and peace.
November 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
“Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
Earlier this month Katherine and I, along with friends, saw Interstellar, a beautifully filmed thriller involving outer space. It did not disappoint. In it the earth is threatened with a fatal cosmic drought due to an atmosphere that can no longer produce water for crops, and therefore sustenance for life. The star, played by Matthew McConaughey, the world’s top astronaut, is commissioned to fly to three distant planets in order to find a new home for the future of mankind. Don’t worry, there is more to the story.
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…’
We in the human race are obsessed with finding our way out of our brokenness. We launch movements. We produce films. We rally people and protests and attention and positions, but our vivid imaginations, though often spectacular, always fall short, because unless light shines into the darkness, our sight remains dimmed. We long for something we can’t obtain by our own resourcefulness.
Advent. Coming. Longing.
In light of the events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri – the shooting – the protests – the violence – the publicity – it seems to me that there is a deeper issue than the incident at hand, and even beyond the historical issues that may have contributed to shaping the incident.
Don’t hear me saying that these issues don’t matter – they do and I am still learning. What I am saying is that what we celebrate at Advent is the longing for something outside of ourselves – it is a longing for contact – light invading darkness, God taking the initiative to touch humanity, in flesh and blood, and then give us something to collaborate with Him in His work of renewal. We long for His coming.
Darkness. Life without light. Hopelessness. Despair. Isolation.
When Jesus was born the world was as messed up as it is today. Injustice and the inhumane treatment of people prevailed in an empire that made itself strong on the backs of oppressed people.
And when He left, it was just as wrecked, but those who encountered Him knew that they had been loved by God.
What we so easily miss in the exchange of ideas, the social debates, the explanations, the rationalizations, the protests, the violence, the social media, the commentary, the characterizations and the polarization of races, classes and politics… is Love.
Love enables us to make contact. It makes us touch rather than assume – it is human- and it obliterates all self-protective and superficial boundaries.
Friends, I believe that we were given these beautiful imaginations – they are a gift. But they don’t exist in order for us to find the fix or the cure, or the answer. They exist in order to inform our spirits and affirm the gospel story, that God has found us, and that we are loved… in Jesus.
This is our good news of great joy.
November 15, 2014 § 2 Comments
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
The other night, Katherine and I sat in our courtyard, beside a small fire, reflecting on our lives together, our family and children, our ministry and calling – you name it. There is something about a fire that seems to suspend all urgency, and draw us into such conversation. And yes, we listened to Christmas music as we did, while sipping on hot chocolate.
As we conversed, we agreed that much of what we thought to be important many years ago in our lives was not so important after all. It wasn’t so much about regret, but of perspective. The thing is that we would not trade anything for where we are now. Fortunately God’s hand has not been thwarted by our stumbles.
‘If I had to do it over again…’ can be a dangerous statement. So can, ‘What if…’ Micromanaging our pasts and obsessing over the future only steal from the present.
Unfortunately the Church hasn’t always been helpful in this area. Through the years Christians have fixated on the future to the point of madness, parsing events and people, while attempting to fit them into a sensationalized ‘end times’ blockbuster movie-type scenario. Authors have raked in millions, feeding off the fears and frenzy of ‘end times’ enthusiasts.
But the gospel teaches that what God will one day do, He is already doing – Right Now. He didn’t identify Himself to Moses with the words, ‘I was’ – It was, ‘I am,’ and you can hear this in Jesus’ prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…’
The gospel works because of this. It enables us to find fresh hope in the moment – Today. Only our regrets and fear of the future will rob us of enjoying God’s grand design for our lives in the present.
Within weeks we will read and recite the beautiful announcement, ‘Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born…’ This is the refrain we find throughout the scriptures – it is all so present tense!
In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a single instance in Jesus’ ministry, in which He dwelled on the pasts of the people He encountered. Other than opening one woman’s eyes to His ability to see through her defenses, He never drudged up incidents and failures of the people He healed and consoled. He was all about the moment.
This was no accident. It was His announcement that with the Father there is grace to continue on with the journey, in spite of our pasts that are speckled with failures, poor decisions and regrets, as well as with the future unknown.
Settle this in your minds and hearts, friends: Regret over the past and Anxiety over the future are not on the Father’s radar.
‘You can step out into it at any moment…’
That’s good news…
October 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace
The picture at the top of this post was a promotional piece put out some 35 years ago or so by Eastern Airlines, the largest employer in the state of Florida at the time. I remember when it came out, and how my siblings and I looked through the faces to finally find our Dad, who was standing in the crowd. Recently it reemerged on an EAL site, and once again we are pouring through it, as though for the first time, looking for our father. Our sight has changed…
Even after we find Dad, it will only be him that interests us. We have no connection with the rest of those faces in the crowd.
Last week about 300 of us, representing the classes of the 1970’s, celebrated our high school reunion. I can’t begin to express how sweet the experience was. There were parties, photographs, a banquet, a football game, and more. On Saturday morning we gathered, fellow grads, old teachers, our former Principal, and the new Headmaster (from my graduating class), to remember those we have lost, during and since our high school years. Tears, laughter, embraces and memories flowed.
When we were in high school, with all that adolescent angst and self-esteem issues, the zits and horniness, and social awkwardness, on some level we lived inside of our own selves. Regardless of our popularity (or lack thereof), we had a school face, and hung with equally insecure teenage friends who were just as secretly attempting to fit in. We adorned ourselves with sports, clubs, gatherings and with our own circles. However on some level, each of us was a face in the crowd, because all of us went home to our lives as they were.
But those years shaped us. And somehow the experience, with all its joy and pain, the thrills, the insecurities, the competitiveness, the feelings of rejection and acceptance, even the high school social hierarchy – all of it, figured into the rest of our lives.
Now the reason I offer this is because for a few brief moments, at our reunion, all of this vanished. In other words, the reunion itself peeled away those layers of insecurity, along with the adolescent cruelties that accompany the drive for social acceptance, giving way to joyful recognition.
We were more than faces in the crowd.
And it struck me that it makes complete sense that in the gospel Reunion is the centerpiece and culmination to the Christian story. Of Jesus, John says, ...we shall see him as he is,’ meaning that isolation and anonymity will one day be engulfed by recognition and communion (1 John 3:2). We share in the promise that we will one day be reunited with Jesus and one another, and that our every insecurity and failure, our sense of not measuring up or bearing up, our sins and our shame, our fears and regrets, even our losses, will be finally and beautifully be swallowed under by the embrace of God’s gathered people.
All this to say, friend, that you are not invisible, and more than a face in the crowd.
What lovely good news…
September 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
I want to be careful with this post, because the intention is not to tap into the popular cry against ‘religion.’ Through brilliant and thoughtful friends in ministry I am learning that some of the symbols of the Faith are important for the experience of deepening faith. So you’ll have to go elsewhere to learn whether or not Jesus was religious.
If we are serious about the Faith, then somewhere in our experience we will be confronted with the reality that platitudes and convenient religious categories disintegrate in the face of human suffering and pain. Sorrow, loss, tragedy and crumbling relationships all have a way of breaking down the superficial ideas we have of God and faith. The categories we often insulate ourselves in, fail when they are most needed, because they never were intended to nurture intimacy, but to avoid it, along with the vulnerabilities that accompany it. As a result they inhibit intimacy with God, and relegate one’s faith to a superficial expression.
And frankly, they break down because Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from pain and suffering in a fallen world. Regardless of what we sometimes hear in pulpits and on TV, Christianity is not an alternative to suffering. (that’s right, Victoria Osteen, you’re missing the point).
Throughout the past few weeks I have received e-mails and messages from people who have written in response to my post on Robin Williams’ death, and the follow-up post. The stories they have shared are excruciatingly painful and indescribably beautiful at the same time, because in them, their authors abandon self-protection, and in doing so they tap into the heart of the gospel which finds its richest expression precisely at intersection of death and life – in Jesus.
Everything about formulaic Christianity is aimed at self-protection. There is nothing real or beautiful in it. In our attempts to avoid pain and doubt and sorrow (or to over-emphasize them!), and all those other very real human expressions and experiences in a damaged world, we cheat ourselves of the one thing we most long for and need – Intimacy with God. Let’s be honest, it isn’t about enjoying God so much as it is about avoiding pain.
In her book, Amateur Believer, Patty Kirk recounts how the Faith she grew up with became dead in her – the promises – the prayers – the liturgies – all of it. And it wasn’t until her mother was dying, and she observed her sister as she cared for her, that it all became real. She writes, “Somehow, in the interim, God pieced that memory of my sister comforting our dying mother together with a thousand other frayed remnants of my life to make himself gradually recognizable to me again.”
Friends, it will always be at the intersection of death and life (that is, in the whole breadth of the human experience) that Jesus is most real.
And because this is where we really live, it can’t help but be good news…
August 30, 2014 § 5 Comments
Robert E. Webber, the Divine Embrace
Two weeks ago I posted on Robin Williams’ death with the hope of honoring the impact he has had in the life of my family, and our world. Additionally, I relayed that he had confessed the Faith, to express that regardless of what drove Williams to suicide, it could not negate the gospel’s power if he belonged to Jesus, fully expecting that some in the believing community would take issue with this (which proved to be true). But I stand by this.
What I didn’t expect was the backlash on the more incidental statements I made on suicide (that they are selfish and cowardly). I say, ‘incidental,’ and am admonished by treating any words lightly.
So let me begin by saying that I greatly appreciate the response! What a rich and rewarding conversation.
Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have always been on the survivors’ end of things – walking beside people in the aftermath of suicide, as they process their last conversations, their last arguments, and their own feelings of guilt, anger, devastation and sorrow. From the survivors’ perspective it always looks selfish, even cowardly.
But what I have learned is that for those who suffer from depression, it all looks the opposite. To the seriously depressed it seems the only unselfish thing left to do.
Here is what a new friend sent my way:
Until recently, I have hidden my struggle with depression. I felt ashamed, weak, lazy, selfish, sinful, and stupid for something I never knew is actually a disease. The chemicals and neurotransmitters in my brain that help stabilize moods don’t work as well as they should. It isn’t that much different from someone whose pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin… The words you chose to use in your blog, cowardice and selfishness, are condemning enough to shame me and lots of others into hiding again.
A long time friend offered this:
Yes, suicide is selfish for those left behind, in that the one considering it is only concerned about relieving his own pain. I would contend, however that with such tremendous pain, he is not choosing to put himself above all others, but rather is unable to see past himself.
Last year the New York Times published an article on suicide, noting that more people die from it annually than in auto accidents. I remember a Youth Workers Convention seminar Katherine and I attended in 1984 that reminded us that every attempt is serious, and will usually be followed up with another.
So to those I was insensitive to, please accept my sincere and heartfelt apologies.
I have a lot to learn. I guess we all do.
I’ll never forget a sermon by the great theologian and pastor, Sinclair Ferguson, who said that he believed that Jesus, in experiencing every human emotion, even battled mental illness in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All this to say that regardless of what we do and don’t understand about the workings of the human condition, fortunately, until He makes everything new, in Jesus we have a Redeemer who sympathizes with and fully grasps whatever darkness we live with – even if no one else can.
And that is very good news, friends…
Postscript: In his LAWeekly blog, Henry Rollins, a former Punk Rocker out of DC, recently wrote on suicide (in response to Williams’ death), and experienced a similar backlash that I did. His articles don’t come from a Christian perspective, and the language is rough, but I appreciate what he offers.
August 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
A refreshingly honest friend
So some disclosure…
I’m a white guy who grew up in Miami in a mostly white world that was shaped by white tastes, white opinions and white culture. Everyone else had to fit in, and it never occurred to me that this could be wrong.
I can’t remember ever thinking that the streets, our neighborhood or my world, were anything other than perfectly safe. And because I was safe and happy, I just assumed everyone else was.
Injustice wasn’t even on my radar, until a friend in ministry opened my eyes. I’ve been catching up ever since, and am far from an authority.
When my studies floundered, I was still believed in and considered full of potential. Contrast this to Malcolm X, a bright-eyed, super-achieving high school student, whose joy was demolished when a teacher scoffed at the notion that he, an African-American, would aspire to a future that involved being anything other than a janitor.
Earlier this week a coworker and I conversed about issues unearthed by the events in Ferguson. He’s black and I’m white. It was good – we just talked. And we agreed on the need to take the conversation to another level.
Random Thoughts I Scratched throughout the Week…
I have to think that the symbolic, anecdotal, mass-media-driven vitriol takes us nowhere good – It has to be personal, because it is.
Sin is never excusable. Period. Figure out the rest, but if you put a color to your conclusions, you’re missing the point.
There are more civilly minded and community-loving people than not (don’t think color – think people).
There are more good cops than bad ones.
There are more bad politicians than good ones (hey, this is my blog – I can say what I want, but term limits would dramatically help).
Violence is almost never the answer, and victims abound when it occurs.
Not merely with words, but in communal life, will the Church make a difference…
There is no ‘Them’
Protest ≠ Destruction
Love > Fear
Right now I don’t like my world very much.
But God created it to be good. And the gospel informs me that everything that disturbs me is less about ‘it’ and ‘them,’ and more about what is in me.
The fact is that I have no idea what went down in Ferguson. But whatever it was, the images have excavated fears, preconceived notions, and prejudices that either I didn’t know existed – or worse, that I never before wanted to admit.
And I don’t know what to do with this other than to pray… and listen.
All the while holding on to the promise that Jesus, the One who entered into the mess that is our world, and actually loved it, is making everything new, until heaven and earth are one, and the nations gather at the throne, where lions and lambs and infants and cobras dwell safely together in peace.
It is the good news that sustains…
August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.
All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.
Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.
I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.
Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).
I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.
Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.
And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.
But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.
Wouldn’t that be sweet.
What good news…
August 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
“… ‘the problem of evil’ is not something we will ‘solve’ in the present world, and… our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of ‘the present evil age.’”
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
What do we do with the world’s brokenness?
The manifestation of evil in the news is particularly horrific at this moment: the fighting in Gaza, the unspeakably sad slaughter in Iraq, Christians and unbelievers alike being executed for sport, with reports of crucifixions and beheadings, even of children. The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, injustices, whether the exploitation of the poor, the scandal of abortion, or the violence and revulsion of human trafficking and sex trade – all are appalling and disheartening. It is beyond tragic.
Yet amazingly, the gospel assures me that no effort to live out of God’s faithfulness from my little corner of the universe will ever be wasted on a world that desperately hungers for meaning and a vision of something better.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus I am assured that one day everything marred and wrecked by the fall will one day be restored to its intended beauty and loveliness.
This means that…
Indifference to the world’s suffering is not an option for those who love Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” Galatians 1:4). And Ignorance to the world’s brokenness is no excuse for those who live in the gaze of the Father’s daily care.
Sharing in the world’s sorrows means freshly recognizing every evil that causes it merely by looking in the mirror – only to rediscover the grace of God in our own brokenness.
Friends, what you do matters, insignificant as it may seem. Don’t let the enormity of evil and the world’s suffering dampen your hope and paralyze your intentions. Every true expression of the Faith. Each kindness. Every stranger received and enemy loved. Every sacrifice made. Every sin repented of. Every tear shed and prayer uttered – all matter, even if no one else notices, and in the belief that God has His supernatural way of multiplying our efforts, as with fish and loaves (John 6).
Hey, we can’t fix the world, but that’s no excuse for inaction, and in our simple offerings, we bear testimony to the One who can and will renew it, and our efforts signposts of God’s good world.
Even if they amount to no more than one beautiful flower in a dying bunch.
Christ has done no less.
Friends, we bear this good news…
July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above…”
America, A Horse with no Name
Nothing restores me like the ocean. The expanse of the waters, the sound of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the surf, the birds, the clouds, the ocean spray, the smell of the water, an occasional breach of the waters by dolphins, and just being there with Katherine – all do something good for my soul.
It is all so beautiful. You can stand in the same place every morning and get a completely different, and equally spectacular view.
But the sea is as treacherous as it is beautiful, filled with immeasurable depths, unlivable pressure levels, treacherous currents, pitch black darkness and terrifying creatures (especially sharks!). It separates people and countries, and throughout history it has swallowed ships and souls whole.
And it is in its beauty and terror that this magnificent expanse symbolizes God’s unfathomable mercy. The prophet Micah writes that God will one day ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19). He is using prophetic imagery to describe the extent to which God freely forgives.
But why the ocean? Why something so beautiful?
Why not hurl our sins into the depths of a chemical waste pit… or bury them at the bottom of a landfill? Why cast the ugliest of who we are into the loveliest of what God has created?
The answer is, because this is what God does. And this is what He has done – in Jesus.
We rebel and our sin is hideous. Yet in exchange, the Father gives us Jesus – not His creation, but His Son – the best of who He is, to take on the worst that we are.
In Jesus the Father has created for Himself a spectacular view that He delights in every day, in the way one would delight in the ocean as the sun rises and sparkles on the water, and as the gulls make their way across the canvas, and the waves gently invite us to drink in the beauty.
Don’t let the imagery be lost on you – it is far too wonderful. It isn’t that God blinds Himself of our brokenness, but that in Christ, our sin has been covered, engulfed as it were, under the deep waters of the Father’s compassion and the Son’s blood.
His Spirit testifies to ours that we are not only His children, but that we are the very thing He delights in, every day.
What good news…